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Front Page > Issues > 2003 > July

Residents say HAP homes making them sick

Since moving into the Plaza Town Homes in 1990, Sylvia Evans has had three heart attacks. She’s also developed congestive heart failure and asthma, along with a slew of other symptoms. And the most frightening part is, she’s not the only one.

Even during summer’s dry heat, a glance at any number of the external townhouse walls reveals dark brown rows of small mushrooms growing from the splotchy wooden siding. The sidewalks and patios are grayish green with dry mold, and despite consistent cleaning by residents, mold also proliferates within many of the residences’ sliding door and window tracks.

The apartment interiors are even worse. Mold grows in the closets and under the sinks. Carpets, too, are breeding grounds, although many dining rooms have only concrete floors. Closet doors are off their hinges. Blinds are too short, allowing bedroom views where privacy is expected. Lead has been found outside and asbestos within. Bathroom fans “sound like 747s” but have no suction to clear the air. The fans are vented to the attic, but there, like in the rest of the building, there is no ventilation to the outside. There are no windows downstairs, and the doors are without screens by the apartment manager’s decree. Despite the sun outside, the living rooms are all in shadow, while the hick, stagnant air suggests a slow suffocation.

These substandard health and living conditions are “the reason why we’re sick,” says Evans, a Board member of the Plaza Neighbors Association (PNA) and founder of People Organizing with Empowered Residents (P.O.W.E.R.!). “That’s the reason why I’m working hard to get out.”

Formerly, with the help of grant money, tenants were able to accomplish community clean-ups twice a year. That money has now run out. With no regular cleaning schedule provided by Cascade

Management, the on-site managers, tenants in this subsidized housing complex struggle to keep the mold and mushrooms in check.

Originally built in the 1970s, the Housing Authority of Portland (HAP) bought the Plaza in 1996 after it had fallen into disrepair. “It’s been a difficult property,” acknowledges Steven Rudman, HAP’s Executive Director. “It’s fair to say that the previous owners didn’t maintain it.”

After seeing the mushrooms in June, Donna Kelley, an asset manager for HAP who oversees the Plaza, explains, “We do scrape them off from time to time.” Mushrooms, according to Kelley, are common with the Plaza’s type of siding. However, although the plan’s exact timing is uncertain, “The painting project this summer will take care of it,” says Kelley. “The newer paints have additives that take care of it.”
“You really shouldn’t have mushrooms growing on walls. When you’re looking at mushrooms, you’re looking at mold,” says Jeri Sundval from the Environmental Justice Action Group (EJAG). EJAG helps North and Northeast Portland low-income housing communities address health concerns related to their living situations. “Mold is a spore, so it affects the respiratory system,” continues Sundval, “It gets into your lungs and can trigger asthma attacks. [Mushrooms and mold] are public health risks.”

Although the mushrooms have not yet been tested to determine their toxicity, residents blame health problems on the prevalent mold apparent both inside and outside the townhouses.

“Since moving in here my health has gone downhill so bad,” says Terri Patterson of unit 46. Currently, she is prescribed six different stabilizer inhalers, two rescue inhalers and undergoes breathing treatments four times a day for fifteen to twenty minutes at a time. Two and a half months ago she underwent surgery for stomach cancer. She’s also contracted degenerative arthritis of the spine, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary disease, double pneumonia, and a fungus of the blood caused by the black spores in mold.

Patterson moved in six years ago, bringing with her a full box of cleaning supplies to combat her new home’s poor condition. Throughout the tenure of the three previous owners, the carpet had never been cleaned nor the walls repainted. While she was out, the manager at the time illegally entered, then used Patterson’s supplies to clean the townhouse. She came home to find a dollar taped to the box of half-empty containers. “Like everything else around here, it’s half-assed,” she says between drags from her Doral. “But with affordable housing, when you’re homeless, you take it.”

Rudman and Kelley insist they had not heard about the health issues at the Plaza. Although they are aware of a leaking roof, other fungus could be a “housekeeping” issue. Whatever the cause, HAP representatives sounded concerned to learn about the potential connection between living conditions and poor health at the Plaza. “We will look into this and obviously redouble our efforts,” says Shelly Marchesi, HAP’s Communications Director.

With the stifling conditions indoors, residents might be expected to seize access to as much fresh air as possible, flinging doors and windows open, and taking full advantage of their patios. But doors without screens allow inside both insects and other uninvited guests.

“If you shut your door for privacy, you have no air. If you open it, you’ve got no privacy,” Evans says. While tenants formerly had fences to enclose each property, there are currently no barriers between the patio and the rest of the complex.

Neighborhood children are also an issue. “Kids wanna come up and play. Often there are kids in the house, in the candy jar, messing with the television,” says Patterson. “I come down from the bathroom (which has no lock on the door) to find them if my door’s open. The word’s out — I’m one of the biggest bitches around and they’re still in my house.”

Additionally, furniture restrictions have limited residents’ access to their own patios. Residents have been told that only “patio furniture” was allowed in the space. Patterson even says three chairs and a table on her patio were thrown away by management because they were not up to “patio furniture protocol.” As a result, most of the concrete patios are devoid of possessions and gatherings altogether.
“We have instituted what we call ‘patio rules,’” explains Kelley, because some tenants had begun using their patios as storage (after their storage units had been removed). But, she adds, “I don’t think we’re that careful that it has to be actual patio furniture. It does have to be in good repair.”

Evans believes privacy screens are a potential solution, but has not been successful at getting HAP to install them. In fact, although Evans insists she has communicated about all the above issues to HAP, Rudman asserts that many of the problems are news to him.

This communication failure has caused Evans to believe tenant ownership, which would allow residents to work toward purchasing their homes and give them more control over their community, is the best solution for the Plaza. With over 14,000 households receiving assistance from HAP, Evans believes the Authority is incapable of responding adequately to Plaza concerns. “They’ve made us so many promises I don’t believe a word they say. I just want to see tenant ownership within the next 3-5 years, if not sooner.”

“We’re open to tenant ownership,” explains Rudman. “We actually do provide [those opportunities] in our public housing.” But the contract HAP signed when they bought the property requires them to own and operate the Plaza for 43 more years. Therefore, unless HUD allows a renegotiation of that contract, residents and HAP are going to need to work together. For everyone involved, let’s hope they succeed.

Emilie Raguso is a former Alliance intern and regular contributor to the paper.


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Last Updated: January 29, 2003